It’s attracting financiers, entrepreneurs and C-suite executives with a contrarian streak. The appeal? A chance to explore unconventional terrain, test your mental and physical mettle, and truly unplug.
The word “gravel” has traditionally not made bikers feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Road cyclists associate gravel with the dangerous scree that causes crashes, while mountain bikers hear “gravel” and think death by boredom. But gravel riders think differently about, well, gravel. To them, it represents a go-anywhere philosophy of cycling that takes riders off busy roads or the confines of designated bike trails and gives them permission to ride virtually anywhere. “‘Gravel riding’ is an unfortunate name for something that really means riding anything beyond just a truly paved road.
There are more than 1 million miles of unpaved roads in America, and in many parts of the world there are seemingly endless options to piece together routes. “To me, gravel riding is an invitation to explore,” says Rebecca Rusch, an endurance cyclist whose feats earned her the nickname Queen of Pain. “You peek down a road and it’s a road less traveled.” In 2013, Rusch started her eponymous gravel festival in Idaho. It culminates with races covering different distances, from the 19-mile Tater Tot to the 100-mile Baked Potato.
To the extent that there is one, the typical gravel rider might partake in a couple of organized events a year. But for many people, gravel is mostly about unplugging. “You really lose the stress of riding on the road with the cars, traffic lights and everything else that is competing for your attention,” says Justin Kelly, CEO and CIO of Winslow Capital Management in Minneapolis, where he can ride countless miles of unpaved farm roads on the outskirts of the city. “You sort of hit this escape velocity to the peaceful place where you have much better scenery and a much calmer environment.”
“The adventure side of it is what appeals to me. It takes me back to when I started to ride a bike as a kid,” says Neil Shirley, who retired from professional cycling in 2010 and has since competed in and won many of the larger gravel events. Some of his favorite rides are those he and friends have dreamed up, including one in Southern California that took them to four decommissioned Nike missile sites, built during the Cold War and accessible via dirt roads and 60-year-old pavement. “We rode more than 100 miles, did 14,000 feet of climbing, and in eight hours saw five cars,” says Shirley.
Still, organized races are growing in number and popularity. “Most races aren’t really billed as races,” says Ben Farver, founder of Argonaut Cycles, a bespoke bike builder based in Bend, Ore. Nearly half of all new inquiries for Argonaut’s hand-built carbon bikes are for customers interested in gravel. “There are people racing, but it’s totally acceptable to show up, ride the course with friends, stop at all the aid stations and just be social.”
The courses are as wide-ranging as the backgrounds of the people who ride them, though they usually string together unpaved rural roads, shoddily paved byways, dirt tracks and bike paths. Some events award prizes to the top men and women, but many, including some of the largest, pay nothing. Most events revolve around food and beer. The Belgian Waffle Ride in San Diego, for example, attracts top male and female pros—but it serves a waffle feast at the start, beer at the finish and bacon in between.
Another notable difference with gravel events is the percentage of women showing up at the start, and the emphasis that race organizers put on bringing them there. More than a third of all participants in the 2018 Rebecca’s Private Idaho were women.
Gravel riding doesn’t require a special kind of bike—that’s another thing in its favor—but the industry has responded to consumer demand by rolling out gravel bikes designed specifically to roll fast over pavement but accommodate wider, nubby tires that can handle a wide range of terrain.
In 2020, Focus Cycling Club will begin its first entry in the Gravel realm. We have a small team ready and we would welcome more members to join us in what is sure to be a major addition to our cadre of rides.